The Naming and Linking of Long Wars
History is full of instances of protracted conflict that that can go on for generations between two nations or two peoples. The question of what to call these periods of war and conflict is a challenge for historians. And, not only how to identify or name them, but also how to divide and sub-divide into logical, smaller parts.
One English historian, John Robert Seeley, spoke to this point in a series of lectures that were published in book form in 1883. His topic, (and the name of the book), was the Expansion of England, and his thoughts on English history led him to look more at the wars fought by the Empire as historical markers, and look less at the more artificial ways in which historical periods are often divided. He took to task the usual British manner of naming historical periods by the reigning monarch. Seeley looked at the reign of King George III (king from 1760-1820), and saw no natural reason that 60-year period should be bound together as a defined historical era other than by the name of the sitting king. Instead, he saw that a period that was bound together by events, not people, and especially not monarchs, made much more sense. Specifically, Seeley looked at the period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the end of the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France in 1815, as a period of history connected by many long years of war with France.
One quote by John Seeley states:
But in a national history there are large as well as smaller divisions. Besides chapters there are, as it were, books or parts. This is because the great events, when examined closely, are seen to be connected with each other; those which are chronologically nearest to each other are seen to be similar; they fall into groups, each of which may be regarded as a single complex event, and I the complex events give their names to the parts, as the simpler events give their names to the separate chapters, of the history.
This again, makes a lot of sense. Seeley connected the great events of the 127 years from 1688 to 1815 as what he referred to as “The Second Hundred Years War.” Like the series of wars fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453 (the original Hundred Years War), the terminology does not literally mean a hundred straight years of war, but rather that the overarching theme of frequent and severe war with France did more to define that period of time
“as a single complex event,” than any other historical marker.
We can take Seeley’s manner of looking at historical periods and decide how to look at recent American history. Does it make more sense to divide American history by, say, presidential administrations, (Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, etc.) or by defining events, such as the “War on Terror” generally considered to have begun on Sept. 11, 2001? (We can look at what to name this ongoing conflict later).
If we look at the history of America with a look at our foreign wars (again, one of the defining points in Seeley’s historical commentary), a natural starting point for the America of today could be the Spanish-American War of 1898. After all, before that war, America looked primarily inward, and after that war, primarily we looked outward and being more involved in world affairs and foreign wars.
Prior to 1898, American wars, with a few exceptions (primarily naval expeditions that rarely reached the level of major war), were thematically and historically linked by the overall American drive to conquer a continent. Most wars after the American Revolution, even if against foreign nations, were fought either on American soil, or in neighboring nations (Canada, Mexico), or against the Native American tribes living in what is now the continental U.S. This era could be called the “Wars of American Expansion”, or even the “Wars of Manifest Destiny.”
If the current war with terrorists is really a result of America’s involvement and dominant position in the world, than that involvement and dominance began when Americans looked to seize the Spanish possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in 1898.
With that in mind, can we call the intervening years the “Century of the American Empire?” or the “Century of American Dominance?”
Perhaps those phrases are a bit too incendiary, but not wholly inaccurate, either. As an overarching historical period or epoch, the “Era of American Foreign Wars” fits the bill. Literally every war fought by American military forces since 1898 has been a foreign war against foreign foes, and, with a few brief exceptions (Pearl Harbor, Attu and Kiska, 9/11), have been fought overseas. It is no coincidence that one of the most significant veteran’s organizations in the U.S. is the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which had its beginnings in 1899 as veterans of the War with Spain and the Philippine-American War banded together.
So, if this Era of American Foreign Wars is the name of the book, smaller, more distinct periods of time (again, using wars as the connecting point) can become the chapters of the book. In future posts, we will look at how to sub-divide this Era of American Foreign Wars into smaller, more distinct periods, while remembering that the sum of the various parts creates a bigger, thematically linked whole. This idea raises questions: Are the two world wars seen as distinct from each other, or are they thematically in the same chapter? And what about the Cold War? Does it sit by itself, or is it also thematically lumped in with other conflicts? Author Philip Bobbitt’s book Shield of Achilles, makes a good case for seeing the period from 1914 (the start of World War Two) to 1990 (the end of the Cold War) is one linked period of conflict he calls the “Long War.” Future posts will examine these questions.